(First posted December 4, 2003)
Disclaimer: Not mine. No profit.
Spoilers/Time Frame: Some time not too long after ‘Bad Timing’.
Beta-readers: None. I couldn’t afford to buy that much Zoloft.
Note to the reader: Hopefully every writer has experienced the moment when a story emerges for no
particular reason, full-blown with every word and detail ready to be recorded, without conscious effort involved
in the creation. It’s an amazing experience when it happens. I’ve been fortunate to have it happen a number of
times. ‘Bookends’ was like that; as was ‘The Listener’. The story was just THERE all of a sudden. This is
* * * * *
The dead building creaks and she stops walking, waiting to see if some more of the ceiling is going to collapse.
It lets out a leviathan-toned shriek, followed by the rumble of a distant structural failure. Broken stone grinds as
she turns, shards squealing against no longer elegantly polished flooring. The sound catches at her inner ear,
teases loose the need to sneeze, turns to a saliva rush sourness when her boot moves onto glass. It screams
beneath her weight.
There had been screams during the attack.
“Pilot?” There’s no need to whisper anymore. Everyone is gone. They’re all dead. A pane of glass slides
loose of its mounting with a long whistle, goes silent, and smashes to the floor. She turns away, shielding her
eyes with a forearm, and waits for the tinkling coda of slivered fragmentation to end.
“Yes, Aeryn.” A voice of normalcy in the midst of unimaginable destruction.
Up ahead, someone is singing.
“Any sign of the ships that did this?”
“None. They have left the system.”
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word …”
Sometimes when glass breaks underfoot, it sounds like a bone breaking.
The breeze flits in through emptied panes, rustles through one of the festive hangings. It snaps, crackles once,
and a portion of the wall eases outward. She ducks, dodges debris, and bolts across the remaining distance.
The passageway offers safety. It remains unscathed, standing proudly amidst the heaps of rubble. There’s no
explanation for why it didn’t get hit in the bombardment.
“Daddy’s gonna buy you a …” Whatever the next word was, it refuses to translate. Some sort of bird, she
thinks. The last syllable sounded familiar.
He is close. Somewhere in the next building.
“Aeryn?” The growling summons from her comms startles her. She’d been thinking about how the Shadow
Depository had looked after Talyn had destroyed it. This place didn’t have anything like the containers to hide
in. Running hadn’t helped these people.
“There’s no one left alive here either. They must have targeted life signs.”
“Or movement.” Running might have made it worse. Perhaps if they’d cowered down, huddled under the
carved stone tables, maybe someone would have survived. “I have to get John. Then we’ll meet you at the
transport pod. There’s no use staying.”
“… if that diamond ring turns brass …”
The comms chirp, and she’s alone again.
There’s a small animal sitting dazed and scorched in the garden. It blinks at her as she goes past, then keels
over. Warm and soft beneath her hand where she feels for breath, it’s so recently dead it could be mistaken
for sleeping. Add one more to the tally.
“… buy you a looking glass …”
She finds him sitting on the base of a toppled statue, huddled over a small bundle in his arms. The song goes
on, crooning to a too-still figure.
He lifts one hand to show her where the fingers remain curled around his thumb, translucent in their fragility, a
tiny miracle in their perfection. “She was crying.”
“I know. You commed me.” The building groans, mourning its inhabitants. She’d never heard those sorts of
emotions coming from inanimate objects until she met him. He’d taught her that even stone can have feelings.
“The others are waiting; we have to go.”
“She died. I couldn’t do anything.”
“I’m sorry.” There’s a landslide of debris in one corner, starting with the pinging descent of small bits of stone,
ending with a crescendo slide of rock and metal. The translucent dome quivers, threatens to fall, and then
quiets down for a little longer. The next good breeze may bring it down on their heads. “We need to get out of
here. It’s going to collapse.”
He nods, pulls the bright, shimmering sheeting around the flopping limbs, and places the child back with its
mother, tucking it into the crook of her arm where he’d found the sole survivor. There’s remarkably little blood.
They walk together through the carnage, step through what had once been a motra-thick solid wall, and
emerge into sunlight.
She starts to turn, but he captures her in his arms and pulls her tight, burying his face in the side of her neck.
It’s fear. She understands. It had been too close, too much a case of dumb luck that they hadn’t been on the
planet when the attack started. For the first time in too many cycles, their luck had run better than everyone
Lean back and let him gather her in; he braces her body with his, thigh to thigh, curling himself around her like
a heavy cloak, his hand burrowing into the waist of her pants to hide with fingers splayed against her
“That could have been us.” His voice whispers warmly against the ticklish spot beneath her ear, lips barely
brushing against her skin in time with the deeper rumbles where he’s pressed against her back.
“It might be.”
“We’ll be careful.”
He holds her tighter, more desperately. “I don’t want to do this.”
She pulls away, pushing hard to get loose, and turns to face him. There’s no 'tell', no hint of what he’s actually
thinking. “There’s a procedure. Do you want me --”
“No! Not that. That’s not what I mean.”
She sighs, chilled and abruptly shaking. He’d scared her with the unexpected comment. There had been a
time when she would have welcomed an excuse to have the procedure, but not any more. They’ve come too
John gathers her in one more time, facing her this time, and draws strength from her. The energy flows out,
undergoes a transmutation, and comes back to her redoubled. She is his strength, he is hers. In a
physics-defying loop, they stand intertwined and create more than the sum of their parts.
“It’s so dangerous. There’s no way to protect him.”
“Aeryn.” It’s a protest, but at least he’s laughing. The ongoing debate is quickly turning into a running joke
between everyone in the crew. Choosing sides is easy. Male against female.
He shakes, shudders, and holds her more tightly, levity discarded as fast as it had appeared. “Was it me?
Was it because of me?”
The destruction is planet-wide. D’Argo and the others have checked; Moya has confirmed. The last one died
in John’s arms. A charnel house spins on its axis. New territory available for settlement once nature disposes
of its rotting cargo. It will take decades before anyone can live here.
“No. Even the Interions have enemies.” Reality of interstellar warfare strikes home.
Birds call. Something is left alive, promising eventual rebirth.
Behind them the dome finally comes down, a final thundering boom as the structure hits the floor. The
motionless bodies are entombed. Glass tinkles down for nearly twenty microts, a festive confectionary coating
that will catch the sun for cycles to come, announcing that once laugher and happiness ruled there.
“No.” Everyone is dead.
It’s her turn to cling. Celebration and happiness have been transformed into grief, soaring spirits plummet,
plumbing the depths. Ice cold sick-making chill in her stomach. Five cycles ago she wouldn’t have felt this
way. It hurts. Sometimes she wishes she could go back.
“God damn it.”
She’s not sure, but she thinks he might be crying. Callousness is only a façade with him, a carefully
constructed mask that can’t protect him sufficiently from the realities of life.
His sobs grow deeper and she realizes that it’s coming from relief, not sorrow. “Hush.” Once again he has tried
to take on burdens that aren’t his. The wracking shudders intensify, and he lets himself be weak for no more
than ten microts, something he only does in her presence. Never anyone else’s. She repeats the word she
learned from him. “Hush.”
“I’m afraid for him.” His hand creeps down and presses against her belly. There’s nothing there yet, no bulge,
no increase in girth. Only John knows that it takes a little more effort to get her pants fastened these days.
He straightens, wipes away the trickling evidence that he let his self-control slip for a few microts, grins, and
gets ready to argue.
She slaps her hand across his mouth and glares at him. “Hush. It’s a girl.” He nods and she takes her hand
away. “Time to go. There’s nothing we can do here.”
“Okay.” They head for the transport pod. There’s no reason to look back one last time. The scenery isn’t
going to change.
“We’ll take precautions. We can protect her.” There’s a long silence beside her that says he’s skeptical … as
always. They’ve gone through this again and again.
He sighs, looks over his shoulder, and then takes an extra long step to catch up. “Him.”
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *